Apr. 16—Could Duluth become the next Hollywood?
Maybe, if bipartisan film tax credit bills pass in the Minnesota House and Senate this year to incentivize production companies to choose the state as a filming location.
The proposed incentive would create a transferable tax credit of up to 25% on in-state purchases for production of movies and TV shows. More than 30 other states currently have some sort of film incentive in place, which is a huge motivator when production companies plan where to shoot projects.
"An incentive program like a film credit is the only way to build a thriving industry in Minnesota because so many other states and countries have implemented film credits," Sen. David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, an author of the Senate bill SF 1986, said during a Senate tax committee meeting Thursday morning. "Due to their success, it's now a necessary condition for attracting large projects."
Philip Gilpin, executive director and CEO of Catalyst Story Institute in Duluth, said the company moved to Duluth in 2018 because it looked like the state was close to getting this incentive. A colleague of Gilpin's at HBO told him that if Minnesota had film incentives, he would've chosen to shoot $100 million worth of productions here in 2019.
St. Louis County's board of commissioners passed a similar film incentive in December, creating a rebate of up to 25% in the county and 20% on the Iron Range for expenditures made in the areas during filmmaking. It's been used as an example at the state level to show how much of a difference the incentive makes in location selection.
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Commissioner Frank Jewell, who represents downtown Duluth and supported the county incentive, said he is a wholehearted supporter of the statewide incentive because of the amount of jobs the film industry would support by bringing people to stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and employ carpenters or electricians for sets. It would also create hundreds of new jobs in the area.
Brian Simpson, who represents Minnesota film and TV crews for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said the current labor pool in Minnesota is not big enough to support the number of jobs these productions would create, which would mean more people could be trained to join the workforce. These jobs, he said to the Senate tax committee, are impossible to automate, and would come with full benefits, training and equipment certification.
"It is sometimes said that film and TV is nothing but temp jobs, but we are just as temporary as the construction industry in that we are a project-based industry," Simpson said. "We are not temp jobs."
Right now, the state is losing these jobs because production companies are choosing to film in other states with incentives, like Georgia, taking the workforce and millions of dollars with them.
Duluth native Van Hayden, who is now a first assistant director, has worked on more than 90 movies and TV shows in his 32 years in the film industry.
"Unfortunately, because of the lack of tax incentives in Minnesota, all but two of those 90 feature films or TV series, I've had to go out of state to work on," Hayden said to the Senate tax committee. "I would love to bring production back to Minnesota."
Former Sen. Dick Cohen said Minnesota has the strongest secondary acting market outside of New York and Los Angeles, and has the second-highest amount of theaters per capita, behind New York. Using local actors will save production companies money on lodging and flying people to the set, plus the state has more accessible filming destinations.
"You can have a production office in the city of Minneapolis and 45 minutes later you're on a farm," Cohen said to the Senate tax committee. "'Grumpy Old Men' is the best example of that. 1995. Production office was in Minneapolis; the interior shooting was done at Paisley Park in Chanhassen; and the exterior shooting was done at Lake City. You cannot duplicate that in a place like Manhattan, LA or even Atlanta."
In the Northland, training for production jobs is already underway. Riki McManus, chief production officer at the Upper Midwest Film Office in Duluth, said filming projects are already planned for Duluth, the Iron Range, and along the North Shore this year. Workshops, like one for lighting technician training at Hibbing Community College, are preparing a workforce as more productions are anticipated to come to the area.
Gilpin said the jobs will be accessible, since they don't require a college degree and training is available locally through Catalyst or the Upper Midwest Film Office. People interested in joining the creative sector won't have to move to New York or California to be in TV or movies — they can come to Duluth instead.
McManus said if the state adds an incentive on top of the St. Louis County incentive, the area could be one of the hottest filming destinations in the state. The cities of Maple Lake and Austin are the only other places in the state with incentives in place, offering 15% and 10% rebates, respectively.
"Here in Duluth, we are seeing tremendous interest in this area," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said in testimony to the Senate tax committee Thursday morning. "Part of it is that Duluth is so beautiful. Part of it is that we have this incredible workforce. Part of it is that we have this amazing geography. It's deep and rich and tells a beautiful story."
As filming begins to ramp up again after being halted by the pandemic, there are more stories than ever just waiting to be told. Larson said Minnesota should be a place the backlog of productions want to go to tell those stories.
Iron Range Rep. Dave Lislegard is an author of the House bill HF 1975. He said his role as an extra in the Iron Range film "North Country" opened his eyes to the issue, when production of the film moved from Minnesota to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to chase a tax credit incentive.
"The story that changed the lives of so many people in this country that started in a certain location in Minnesota had to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico because of a film credit," Lislegard said. "This last year has ripped this country — this world — apart for so many different reasons. But right here in the state of Minnesota, we've had a situation, a travesty, that the whole world is watching. And at some point they're going to tell that story. We want that story to be told here."
The bills have been introduced to House and Senate tax committees.